Richard Smith: Australians fire an editor of the MJA for the fourth time

richard_smith_2014The Australian Medical Publishing Company (AMPCo), a creature of the Australian Medical Association, has just fired another editor of the Medical Journal Australia; that’s at least four (and probably more) in my professional lifetime. Over the same period the Canadian Medical Association has got rid of two, and the American Medical Association one. The British Medical Association has never fired one, although it’s come close.

Stephen Leeder, a friend of mine, was fired because he disagreed with AMPCo outsourcing production of the journal to Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher and owners of the Lancet. Leeder is a former dean of Sydney University Medical School and one of Australia’s best known clinician scientists. Deputy editor Tania Janusic is also reported to have resigned along with several members, even most, of the editorial board.

Leeder argued that AMPCo had failed to understand the “collegiality” of the process of producing a journal. Others argued that Elsevier is an “unethical company” in that it published a fake journal in Australia paid for by the drug company Merck. Another concern is that the research in the journal, which has been open to all, will disappear behind access controls.

AMPCo’s argument is financial. The journal depends financially on the AMA, and AMPCo says that the current production system is “extremely costly and inefficient.” It says that “the future viability of the Journal was at risk.” It had to act.

I spoke at the centenary meeting of the MJA last year, and my core argument was that the time of journals as conduits for publishing science is coming to an end. They’ve done well to survive for 400 years, but the advent of the World Wide Web means that they aren’t needed any more.

Most of those at the meeting didn’t agree with me, but the future of the medical journals of smaller countries is especially uncertain, particularly those that publish in English. Scandinavian journals might survive in some form because despite almost all the doctors speaking English they like to read in their own languages. The New Zealand Medical Journal ceased to publish in paper some time ago and is a skinny beast, heading towards being nothing more than obituaries, news, gossip, clinical yarns, and extracts from the journal of a hundred years ago. What is the point, we might ask?

The main sources of income for journals like the MJA are subscriptions and advertising, and both have long been declining. This means that the members of the AMA have to support the journal, and as their numbers diminish the cost per member rises. Eventually they ask “Do we need this journal? Is it worth it?” The next step is to go electronic, cutting the substantial costs of producing a paper journal, but for many journals that’s probably a step towards oblivion.

So I have some sympathy with AMPCo, but firing a highly distinguished editor two years after firing the previous editor doesn’t seem like a smart move. JAMA and CMAJ have recovered despite the high emotion and drama surrounding their editors being fired, but have the Australians gone too far? Who would want to edit a journal where editors last no longer than Premier League football managers (and without the handsome pay off), one of the country’s medical leaders has been led out of the building, an “unethical publisher” is taking over, and the journal is probably headed for extinction?

Competing interest: RS is a friend of Stephen Leeder and spoke at the centenary meeting of the MJA. He had his expenses paid, including a business class return from London to Sydney, and was paid a fee. Years ago he used to write a column in the MJA but can’t remember whether he was paid or not.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004. He is now chair of the board of trustees of icddr,b [formerly International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh], and chair of the board of Patients Know Best. He is also a trustee of C3 Collaborating for Health.